Oh, did we raise chickens! It was a major source of income for the Scheckel family on the Oak Grove Ridge farm in the heart of Crawford County in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mom and Dad bought chicks wherever the price was right, which means the lowest price. They would drive to Olewien or Cedar Rapids in Iowa or Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin. The female laying White Leghorn chicks were received in April.
The Cornish Rock roosters were purchased in May. They were for slaughter and sold to stores in Prairie du Chien and Viroqua. Often, the baby chicks came by mail. Yes, the rural carrier mailman motored out of Lynxville and would have 4 or 5 boxes of the little peepers stacked up the trunk of his car.
Dad and Mom received a postcard in the mail that gave the date the baby chicks were to arrive. There was always the worry over cold weather. Baby chickens need to be kept warm.
The big day arrived in late March or early April. The mailman pulled his Chevy Coupe into the driveway of the farmstead, instead of the usual mailbox stop. A rope from the trunk latch hung down over the boxes and was tied to the bumper.
All of us kids gathered around, getting as close as we dare. We could hear the chicks chirping and beeping away. We tried putting our finger into one of the air holes of a box. Mom scolds “back away kids”.
One by one the boxes were lifted out of the trunk, kept very level by the handler. Three or four boxes are stacked on our toy wagon. We fought over who got to pull the wagon tongue. Phillip usually did, he is bigger, he is older, and he gets first dibs.
Bob and I held the boxes in place atop the kids wagon as we slowly made the journey to the chicken coop. We paused by the door. Mom opened the door, removed the top box, placed it inside the coop, and close to one of the brooder heat lamps.
The boxes were about 2 feet on a side, and 5 inches high. The side of the boxes had an ample number of half-inch round holes so that the little chicks could get fresh air. Each box was partitioned into 4 compartments using cardboard walls. About 15 White Leghorn chicks were in each little compartment. This arrangement of cubicles prevented the chicks from crowding together and smothering each other.
We reached in the box and cradled a baby chick in both hands. Then we would dip the chick’s beak into the drinking fountain water. Baby chicks had to be taught how to drink water. Then we would place them ever so gently under the heat lamp, amid admonitions to “be careful not to squeeze them”.
We found them so small and cuddly. We are curious about their tiny yellow feathers, small black eyes, and beaks that opened and closed.
Chickens were Mom’s job. That was her undertaking. Dad would tend to the cows, horses, pigs, and sheep, but Mom raised the chickens.
The chicken coop or brooding house was prepared days in advance. Walls were cleaned, floor scraped clean, and disinfected with a smelly brown liquid applied with a wide paint brush and sprayer. That stuff was so bad it was later banned. But it did kill lice!
The brooder was installed. A contraption with a sheet metal hood, four sided, apron down to about 4 to 5 inches. A thermometer kept track of the temperature. Temp had to be about 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mom had to go out to check the temperature of the brooder almost every hour. Chicks soon develop their own heat, so the thermostat had to be turned down or backed off periodically.
We helped set up glass bubblers for water and small metal trays for chicken feed. Baby chicks needed warmth, water, food, and a quiet brooder house. Sudden, loud, sharp noises would frighten the wee fowl and they could bunch up in the corner and smother.
We, too, had baby chicks arrive when I was growing up. Not as many, but they would come by post also, and they were cute as you described. My mom was in charge of them. Most of them were for eggs, but when their egg-laying days were over, they were for consumption. The roosters were the terror of the yard. Mom and Dad kept only one or two, but they were birds of war! We kids often had to gather the eggs, and the rooster/roosters terrified us. One especially would jump on our backs and peck our heads. Another one was so terrible that Dad finally eliminated him with a .22 riffle. We were not sorry!
As with most of Larry Scheckel’s writing, it brought back memories of visiting my grandmother’s farm and the chicken house and the chicks. I learned from this account the things I was too young to think about (in the 1930s and 1940s). I am interested in your writing, which I enjoy as I learn. Remembering the way it was in long ago years brings a comfort that all is well in our world. As long as baby chicks matter and two little boys with a wagon did their part, all IS well, still. I loved the sketch that came with this account – it was charming, so realistic and truthful. Thank you.